Ever since 1492, the history of the Western Hemisphere has been the story of the collision of civilizations, and how vibrant new hybrid cultures evolved from that collision. Music in the Americas is the soundtrack to this process, an ongoing cultural dialog between the European, African and indigenous peoples that first came into contact during the Colonial era.
It all began in the Caribbean, where Europeans (mainly Spanish, English, French and Dutch) first encountered the "new world" and its inhabitants (mainly Arawak, Carib and Taino) - which were soon all but wiped out by European colonial armies and diseases. In the 16th century, Europeans began importing African slaves to work the sugar plantations, a practice that lasted until 1886 and displaced upwards of 10 million Africans. The demographic impact of these upheavals was enormous, leading to the racially mixed "creole" culture of the Caribbean and it's music.
Enslaved Africans brought their music and culture with them-often forced to hide and submerge both under a mask of "assimilation." Slaveholding colonies banned African drums, for fear of their role in fermenting slave revolts, forcing Africans to create and master new instruments, from the banjo to the cajon. While talented African musicians mastered popular European instruments and styles, such as quadrilles and schottisches favored by the Plantation classes.
By end of the 19th century a host of new creole musical styles had sprung up all over the Caribbean: kaiso in Trinidad, danzon and rumba in Cuba and the biguine in Martinique. These new sounds laid the template for the much of the region's popular music in the 20th century: Kaiso would evolve into calypso and soca; biguine, would beget zouk, compas and other French Antillean sounds. While rumba and danzon would spawn everything from the mambo and Latin jazz, to salsa and the Buena Vista Social Club. At the same time, new styles were springing up, too. From ska and reggae in Jamaica to merengue and bachata in the Dominican Republic. By the end of 20th century the Caribbean had emerged as a global musical powerhouse.
North American music followed a similar trajectory, with the end of slavery in the U.S. in 1865 roughly coinciding with the birth of recorded music in 1877. In the U.S., particularly the Southern states, homegrown African-American styles such as blues, jazz and Gospel were laying the foundation for American popular music. These styles all had one foot in Africa - blues with its griot connection, Gospel with its ecstatic worship, and jazz with its syncopation and improvisation - and another in the Americas, and during the 20th century, they would explode into a myriad of new forms: blues and jazz would beget R&B, rock 'n' roll, funk, disco, and hip-hop.
But African-American music isn't the only story in North America, Europeans, too, brought their music with them, and much of it remains to this day. In Canada and the United States, English, Irish and Scots-Irish folk ballads traveled with from the Colonies on the Eastern Seaboard across the Appalachians, and beyond, where they became the basis for everything from Cape Breton, Appalachian and bluegrass music to cowboy ballads and American country music (not to mention one of the key components in early rock 'n' roll). Similarly, the French colonial legacy still makes itself felt in the Cajun music of Louisiana and the Acadian music of Quebec. Successive waves of European immigrants in the 19th and 20th century also brought their music with them, and styles as different as traditional Irish reels, Neapolitan ballads and Klezmer freylekhs became part of the American songbook. And, of course, the original inhabitants of North America still continue to make music: from traditional flute and "powwow" music to "rez rock" and other fusion styles, native Americans will not be silenced.
Not to be forgotten, Mexico and Central America have unique musical profiles all their own. Unlike the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, where native peoples were either largely exterminated or marginalized, Mexico and Meso-America still boast relatively large indigenous populations. Mexico is by far the dominant musical and cultural force in the region, and its music largely reflects indigenous and European influences. The Aztecs of central Mexico had a well-developed musical culture, and their sensibility (as well as their language) live on today in several regional styles. While the European influence can be strongly felt in the corrido, a ballad form with roots in Medieval Spain, and the ranchera, a uniquely Mexican adaptation of the waltzes and polkas brought by German immigrants in the 19th century. On the Caribbean coast, a more Africanized influence can be felt in the son jarocho, which bears a distinct Cuban stamp.
In Central America the marimba, a wooden xylophone with African roots, is ubiquitous. It cuts across cultural and ethnic boundaries: as popular with the indigenous Maya as with the mestizo populations of the region. Guatemala in particular has adopted the marimba as their national instrument. On the Caribbean coast, African roots run deeper, especially in Belize, where the Garifuna people-an Afro-Indigenous people with roots in the Eastern Caribbean-cling to a unique language, lifestyle and musical culture. -Tom Pryor